IP & Copyright
Sherlock Holmes: A Winner for Book Publishers
Early last month, the Seventh Circuit of Appeals held that the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate must pay attorney’s fees to plaintiff, Leslie Klinger. The payment of attorney’s fees is the latest setback for the Conan Doyle Estate in its attempt to block the publication of Klinger’s two Sherlock Holmes anthologies without first obtaining a licensing fee. In mid-July, Justice Elana Kagan denied the Conan Doyle Estate’s stay (i.e., blocking the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling).
For the readers who don’t know the background preceding the lawsuit, let me summarize it for you: Klinger, who is a Sherlock Holmes scholar, co-edited two Sherlock Holmes anthologies, A Study in Sherlock and In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, which contained new and original short stories about Sherlock Holmes by contemporary authors. The Conan Doyle Estate claimed that Klinger needed to obtain a license from the Conan Doyle Estate to publish A Study in Sherlock with Random House and a second license to publish In the Company of Sherlock Holmes with Pegasus Books. Klinger believed he did not need a license to publish the anthologies because he believed the Holmes and Watson characters were in the public domain. Although Random House acquiesced and purchased a license, Pegasus Books refused to finalize its author agreement with Klinger if he did not seek a license. Thus, stuck without a book contract with Pegasus, Klinger sued the Conan Doyle Estate in 2013 and sought a declaratory judgment (i.e., a legal determination by a court about a particular uncertainty between the parties) on pre-1923 and post-1923 story elements in the Sherlock Holmes canon, including but not limited to, characters, character traits, dialogue, etc., in order to determine whether or not Klinger needed a license from the Conan Doyle Estate.
In December 2013, a federal district court in Illinois ruled in favor of Klinger by stating that he needed to obtain a license from the Conan Doyle Estate for post-1923 story elements but did not need a license for pre-1923 story elements. In June, the Seventh Circuit of Appeals affirmed the Illinois district court’s decision and stated that Klinger did not need to obtain a license for his anthologies because the Holmes and Watson characters were in the public domain.
Justice Kagan’s denial of the Conan Doyle Estate’s stay likely signifies that the lawsuit has finally come to a close. Klinger’s win is advantageous to book publishers because publishers likely do not need to obtain a license from the Conan Doyle Estate to publish anthologies or other literary works. Moreover, Klinger’s victory affects the movie and television industries, which seem to almost always have a Sherlock Holmes television show or motion picture airing or in post-production.